Monday, April 30, 2012

A Tale of Two Pelhams

Spectrum Culture has a fun new feature that compares and contrasts remakes of films with their original versions. It's already made for some great reads, and I finally got around to writing an entry of my own. For my piece, I stacked Joseph Sargent's 1974 The Taking of Pelham One Two Three against Tony Scott's 2009 remake. I found both to be fantastic pieces of popular entertainment, one an unpretentious thriller that embodies mid-'70s ennui and grime, the other a frenetic, color-soaked reflection of post-9/11 and post-2008-crash America. Both are smarter than they seem, though Scott's film is a bit more eager for you to know it. A rare case of two totally valid interpretations of the same root material.

My full piece is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Geoff Dyer — Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room

I mentioned reading this a few weeks back and that a full review was on the way. It's finally up at Spectrum Culture. Zona was a great read, illuminating in its anecdotal production details but best for Dyer's beautiful, sometimes poignant thoughts on one of the greatest of all films. There are some hiccups and digressions that grate, but for the most part this is one of the best books on a single movie I've yet read. Highly recommended.

Check out my full review now at Spectrum Culture.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Day & Night (Teddy Newton, 2010)

[The following is an entry in Pussy Goes Grrr's Short Animation Blogathon, running April 23-27.]

My first experience with short animation was, naturally, old Looney Tunes cartoons played in syndication on morning TV when I was growing up in the '90s. Yet it was through Pixar that I first got the chance to see shorts (either animated or live-action) on a big screen. I still remember the first of Pixar's theatrically attached shorts—Gen's Game, the loopy back-and-forth of an old man ferociously playing himself at chess in a park—better than the feature it accompanied, A Bug's Life. Though I was far, far too young to elucidate how the short's construction hooked me, the way its cuts and "angles" made the old player seem like two distinct people each formulating secret strategies against the other was riotous and thrilling. For the longest time, the lingering, nostalgic giddiness Gen's Game produced made it my favorite of the Pixar shorts.

Until Day & Night. Released 12 years after 1998's Gen's Game, Day & Night was the first Pixar short since that one to be superior to the film it supported. The difference is that the earlier film easily stood out against Pixar's sophomore slump. But Day & Night, that was attached to one of the studio's finest, the unexpectedly poignant, technically superfluous Toy Story 3. At six minutes long, Day & Night proves as much a technical achievement as the feature presentation, and its driving theme as simple and direct yet illuminating and intelligent as the themes of maturation and moving on in Toy Story 3.

True to the time limitations of the form, the short sets itself up quickly. Opening on the usual Pixar 3D animation of an idyllic field, the camera pulls back until it reveals this world as being the tightly contained view of a transparent being existing in 2D space against an infinite black void. Stumbling about in his morning routine, this being happens across someone just like him. Well, almost. Instead of showing an area basked in the morning sun, this other creature offers a window into night. Startled, the two soon engage in a hostile pissing match to demonstrate their superiority, each showing off what goes on at their respective times to impress and cow the other.

The thematic implications are obvious, and only more so as the shortened plot swiftly moves the two from antagonism to mutual admiration and cooperation. Capped off with an old lecture from Wayne Dyer about the importance of embracing the different, Day & Night makes a clear, direct argument for children that warns against xenophobia and just generally hating the unknown. But what makes the film truly masterful is how it's put together. The movement of the two beings in the 2D realm, as well as their moods and expressions, is demonstrated through objects and sounds captured within their portal bodies. For example, when Day wakes up to a rooster crow at the start, thunderclouds communicate the cracking of stiff joints and the sigh of pleasure he emits when he walks into the releasing rush of a waterfall is...well, guess. Even better is the integration of the outer 2D space with the 3D textures within, enhancing the texture of both levels. For a more in-depth account of how this looked in a theater with 3D glasses on, I direct you to Tim Brayton's simply magnificent contemporary review of the short, which he later named the best film of 2010.

Tim's review is so incredible that I'll pretty much stop here, unable to equal his piece, much less add to it. Even his title, "Hegel for Wee Folk," is brilliant, though it also offers perhaps the one area where I can object to him on any grounds. Though the use of 2D and 3D to illustrate the conflict between day and night certainly highlights Hegelian dialectic in several respects, the film's final moments, of the dualities of the two creatures reversing, move beyond Hegel into something more reminiscent of Levinas. When the two stand side by side, the sun setting in one and rising in another (complete with a brief meeting of the two semicircles at the midpoint of both bodies), the self and other invert and become irrelevant, fictitious projections that compel us not into the hatred cautioned against by Dyer but in the fundamental need for empathy as espoused by Levinas. Whether it owes more to Hegel or Levinas, though, Day & Night still broaches at least one of the most challenging philosophers in history, even as it presents a cogent, easily parsed out message for kids. It's one of the best short films I've ever seen.

The Filth and the Fury (Julien Temple, 2000)

The Filth and the Fury opens with an old BBC weather report announcing incoming rain. The metaphor works two-fold, as a literal announcement of the coming storm that is the Sex Pistols, and as a brief look into the starched public face of Britain that is about to have a safety pin shoved through its nose. Indeed, Julien Temple devotes only a few minutes to establishing the adolescences of the Sex Pistols, instead focusing on the social context of the mid-'70s that allowed the band to rise. A few photographs of young Steve Jones and John Lydon are swiftly drowned out by images of trash piling into mountains in the streets during a years-long garbage strike, of punters standing unaffected by a lump of dead rats large enough to be capybaras.

Temple attempts to capture some of the slapdash energy of the band's actual formation, shoved together by impresario Malcolm McLaren and molded into the perfect embodiment of Thatcherian fury and inchoate aggression. Much of the film's first act, in fact, deals with the group's attempt to bash their way into any semblance of musical competence, archival footage and audio of early performances showing off four individuals with no business standing on a stage slowly building a following off their insane look and crazier live act. As the refuse of Britain's youth slowly trickled into whatever shit hole the Pistols played, a movement starts to form, simultaneously proving the shrewdness of McLaren's fashion marketing and turning into something inadvertently genuine.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Raid: Redemption (Gareth Evans, 2012)

It cannot be denied that the fight choreography in Gareth Evans' The Raid: Redemption ranks among the finest ever put to film. A showcase for the Indonesian martial art of Pencak Silat, The Raid plays a attention-deficit version of Die Hard, replicating that film's sense of economic progression through the floors of an enemy-controlled building but cutting out even the slightest pauses. In theory, it's the perfect film, not wasting any time on plot or even characterization before moving into a police raid on an apartment complex serving as a haven for Jakarta's criminals. The film barely even makes time to establish why an elite squad is about to kick in the doors of this building, and it says even less when they start kicking in heads.

In practice, however, this lack of any establishing narrative swiftly turns The Raid into a tedious exercise, a repetitive display of martial arts prowess that gradually changes from thrilling to dull to, finally, vaguely offensive. Never has the case been more clearly made for the necessity of the storytelling that action fans find a hurdle to surmount before getting to the killing. Late in the film, the crime lord (Ray Sahetapy) at the top of complex immediately throws off the imminent threat of a plot emerging by dismissively saying, "I don't give a shit about 'why' anymore." If he ever did, that puts him one up on Evans.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Random List: 15 More Great Live Albums

I had so much fun writing about some of my favorite live albums the other week that I thought I might share some of my other musical favorites. And since I had so many live albums on the brain and received a number of suggestions for other albums to try, I thought I'd post a few more of my live favorites, as well as some of the new discs I've been trying lately. As with the last post, any recommendations of yours are more than welcome.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Monsieur Lazhar (Philippe Falardeau, 2012)

I'm afraid I didn't particularly take to Monsieur Lazhar, the classroom drama that received an Academy Award nomination for best foreign-language film at this year's Oscars. Trying desperately to avoid the usual pitfalls of moralizing, treacly schoolyard films, Lazhar ultimately loses the thread of its subtle expression and simply treads water. It also makes obvious what had earlier been broached with such elegant subtlety that I couldn't help but feel let down by its lack of faith in the audience. Its resolution is easily uneasy, downbeat in that facile manner that strives for ambiguity but effectively seals off the narrative. There are some fine performances, but the whole failed to stay with me.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, 2012)

[Warning: Contains mild first-act spoilers after the jump]

Drew Goddard made his feature debut with 2008's Cloverfield, penning the film's ambitious but misguided script that sought to comment on modern mindsets regarding the documentation of our lives via the kaiju film genre. His idea, clever on paper, was that a group of privileged New York yuppies contending with 9/11-esque frenzy would nevertheless ensure that their bewilderment and horror was caught on video for posterity, or at least for YouTube hits. Unfortunately for Goddard, director Matt Reeves' muddled direction and some dire acting performances sapped whatever potential the script contained, resulting in a lifeless film that only occasionally hinted at just how far it wanted to go with its metaphor.

By teaming up with his old Buffy and Angel boss Joss Whedon, however, Goddard got a second chance to say something with horror, and The Cabin in the Woods truly delivers on his promise. At times recalling Sam Raimi's 2009 return-to-form Drag Me to Hell, The Cabin in the Woods differs from that film, and other self-aware horror movies, by not merely calling attention to horror tropes but breaking them down, working out how they apply to the genre, as well as how filmmakers (and participatory audiences) apply them to it. To oversimplify it into a pitch, where movies such as Drag Me to Hell or the Scream series are about horror films, The Cabin in the Woods is about horror itself.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Steven Spielberg: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

In defense of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, there is at least some kind of push to make the movie distinct from its predecessors. Where the first three films paid homage to serials of the ‘30s and ‘40s, Crystal Skull accounts for the 19-year gap between between this fourth installment in the franchise and 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade by shifting its inspirations accordingly.

Here, the root inspiration is ‘50s-era science fiction (and its attendant Cold War subtext), which, in a way, makes the film unique, at least in relation to the other Indy movies. Instead of relics with supernatural might, the treasured objects of the film’s title are mysterious, perfectly formed skulls with strange powers, powers not of brute strength but of mental manipulation. In keeping with anti-Communist paranoia, the weapon here is the power to brainwash without fail. It’s a clever twist that didn’t get enough credit upon the film’s initial release; the only critic I can recall even mentioning it was, of all people, routine Spielberg-basher Jonathan Rosenbaum.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Random List: 10 Great Live Albums

I've been exceedingly busy lately with the tail end of my internship, graduation preparation and a job hunt, so I've watched few movies and even started to write about even fewer. However, I have had my iTunes playing nonstop as I work and fill out endless cover letters, and I've been itching to say something about the music I've been loving lately. A great deal of my recent listens have been live albums which, when great, can leave studio albums in the dust; there are even bootlegs for artists I play more than their official product. The following 10 official releases are some of the live discs I spin most often. I don't claim these to be "definitive" picks, though I've encountered few other records than can match them. So take a look at some of my favorites and see if you spot anything familiar.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

50 Book Pledge #11: George R.R. Martin — A Storm of Swords

My favorite aspect of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, judging from its first three installments, is its respect for consequences. A Clash of Kings compounded an instantly complex series by charting the outcomes of A Game of Thrones' actions as they rippled out across Westeros and realms beyond. Fortunes rose and fell, and new players emerged to capitalize upon the deaths and victories, while others were instantly doomed by same. A Storm of Swords packs more into its hefty length than both its predecessors combined, but it maintains the series' sense of unstoppable inertia, of each action provoking reactions that have the effect of making horrible situations even more ghastly. I would say it also means that the uplifting moments spread out too, but nothing good seems to happen in Westeros these days.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Beat Hotel (Alan Govenar, 2012)

I know so little about the Beat Generation. All I was taught in school were excerpts of On the Road and a shambles of a class reading of "Howl" in college. So in the dark am I regarding the nuances of the movement that The Beat Hotel, Alan Govenar's slight but engaging documentary, was more educational than all my English-department forays into the Beats put together. Offering a fondly recalled overview of the dingy Parisian roach motel for ex-pats, The Beat Hotel helped clarify the links between the Beat and Lost generations and how the former is the more harrowed, paranoid iteration of the latter. Anecdotes are touching, amusing, even a bit frightening (usually the ones involving William S. Burroughs), while the remembrances of the surviving witnesses of this time period are all universally the best kind of old person, the type who have just aged into great storytellers. It's overlong (despite only being 80 minutes long), but the movie does do a service to a still-underappreciated moment in our literary history. Besides, it made me run out and go buy Naked Lunch after finishing.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Monday, April 2, 2012

John Carter (Andrew Stanton, 2012)

Unfairly, if inevitably, compared to a number of science fiction films which gutted Edgar Rice Burroughs’ source material, John Carter admittedly doesn’t feel like anything new. Its narrative of an embittered veteran transported to another world where he becomes a just warrior fighting for natives naturally calls to mind Avatar, and some setpieces look almost uncomfortably close to similar sequences from Star Wars movies. The very nature of the story places the film in the past, its pulpy, gung-ho dialogue wholly at odds with contemporary cynicism.

Yet if Andrew Stanton doesn’t reinvent the genre with his first foray into live-action filmmaking, he does at least offer up one of the few truly thrilling, giddy adventure epics of the last decade, maybe even since the third Indiana Jones installment. Though clearly meant to launch a franchise—and thus weighed down by all the overcooked mythology and origins that define the first entry in a planned series—John Carter features enough coherent action and empathetic characterization to make one of the few overstuffed blockbusters I’d love to watch more than once.